Monday, July 28, 2014

Build High For Happiness (Night Terrors)

Council estates are nothing to be scared of, unless you are frightened of inequality. 
- Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History

Oh boy, creepy children/dolls! I've never seen those before!
It’s September 3rd, 2011. Olly Murs is at number one with “Heart Skips a Beat,” with Calvin Harris, Maroon 5, and Emeli Slade also charting. Unsurprisingly, not a lot of news since “The Gathering.” Actually, literally the only thing I can find is that a plane belonging to the Chilean Air Force crashed, killing all twenty-one on board. And, of course, Night Terrors aired.

I have in the past come out on record as saying Night Terrors is my least favorite story of the new series. This sets up a somewhat awkward situation, in that the expectation becomes that I am now going to explain why it is my least favorite story of the new series, which I can do, but the answer is pretty underwhelming: because I enjoy watching it less than all the others. I know. Which is to say, if you’re looking for some definitive argument about why this is the absolute worst episode and Victory of the Daleks or The Sontaran Stratagem or 42 or Fear Her are superior, sorry. It’s just that if you told me I had to watch one of those six, I wouldn’t pick Night Terrors.

Nevertheless, I do think the episode has significant problems that are worth talking about. Although even there, I have to admit that some of the problems it has are not entirely it’s fault. First and foremost, it was painfully poorly served by the last minute decision to switch it with Curse of the Black Spot (a decision taken so late that Night Terrors is featured prominently in the post-Christmas Carol trailer). This proved problematic for two reasons, one of which should have been apparent at the time, the other one of which was wholly impossible to predict and, nevertheless, ultimately the larger problem with the story.

The foreseeable issue was largely structural. This is not what you would call a terribly complex story. It wears its intentions on its sleeve, or, at least, in its title. It’s supposed to be the scary one - the definitive take on the haunted house story. That’s its entire brief: be the extremely scary one. This was, ostensibly, why it was moved: because putting it in the first half of the season meant that essentially the entire first section of the season was scary, dark, and indoors, and by swapping it with Curse of the Black Spot they added a story that was scary, dark, and outdoors instead. But what this ended up doing was moving this story away from the position it would have originally had, where it would have, in effect, served as the definitive statement on how to do straightforward Doctor Who horror before a bunch of other stories started to change things around a bit. Even there it would have suffered coming after The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, which already changed the “scary Doctor Who” paradigm dramatically, but it would have been improved. Instead it feels shabby, overly simplistic, and like the series has decided that as long as it makes some mundane object creepy it doesn’t actually have to try to do anything else. In September of 2011, at least, this just isn’t very good.

And so this ends up being, in effect, the last gasp of a particular style of Doctor Who. It’s in effect the last Davies-era story. Its central twist of resolving a fantastic plot with the application of human emotion - which, when people want to slam Davies’s work, is what they call a “power of love” ending - was the central structural innovation of the Davies era. Although Davies, to be fair, was usually less obvious about it - it was actually Gatiss himself who originated the direct “emotion vs aliens” resolution in The Unquiet Dead. Still, the basic formula is still very Davies - parallel a story about people and emotions with a story about aliens, and then resolve the emotional/character storyline, allowing the parallelism to then resolve the alien story with or without a whole lot of exposition as to the precise mechanics of how that works. It is, in many ways, one of the primary tricks of the Davies era, along with a savvy embrace of the language of television.

It’s not that either of these are bad ideas that the Moffat era is going to do away with - we’ve still got an unabashed “power of love” ending in The Snowmen, for instance, and many of the stylistic techniques that defined Davies ultra-televisual take on Doctor Who are going to survive as the Moffat era really starts to develop its filmic take. But this is, in many ways, the last story to run through this approach in the classic, unadulterated style. It’s fitting, in many ways, that it airs the same week as Davies’s last scripting credit on a Doctor Who-related story, in that it means that there’s really one week of history where we finally wrap the approach up. But equally, Night Terrors is done no favors by its proximity to the three stories following this, two of which serve as the debut for the most important director to hit Doctor Who since at least Euros Lyn, if not since Graham Harper.

Put earlier in the season, where it was originally intended, this could have served perfectly adequately as one last emphatic statement of a particular style the show could do - something akin to The Seeds of Doom or Image of the Fendahl that is, while by no means an absolute classic of its approach, at least a competent and enjoyable last hurrah. And in many ways, it still is like both of those, neither of which I was massively kind to, because there’s a very fine line between enjoyable last hurrah and slightly awkward throwback. All the same, I suspect that for this story, at least, that line is somewhere in the summer of 2011.

Another thing that was in the summer of 2011, and that is in many ways more problematic for the story, albeit considerably less predictable, were a bunch of riots. It is here necessary to engage in some frantic disclaiming, not least because, this only having happened about three years ago, there’s not even a nice veneer of history to cover me. So, up front, there are some significant barriers to any sort of sympathy for the rioters. Certainly the riots were tremendously self-defeating. There is no reasonable way to claim that they were not in part, indeed, in a substantial part motivated by little more than outright anger and destructiveness. Many, indeed the overwhelming majority of people directly harmed by the riots were by any sensible standard innocent victims. And no sensible theory of political activism can really conclude that indiscriminate smashing of stuff is going to get you much of anywhere.

All of which said, in practice there is something grimly inevitable about riots - a toxic mixture of poverty, degradation, and summer heat that periodically and predictably combusts. 58% of those arrested in connection with the riots came from the poorest 20% of areas of England. This fact speaks volumes about the causes of the riots. And perhaps more to the point, it is not necessarily reasonable to expect people’s howl of outrage at the apparent and hopeless dead end that is their life to be orderly and productive. It cannot be ignored that the people who set the standards for what reasonable and appropriate protest consists of are, inevitably, the exact fuckers who are being protested against. It would be folly to expect or assume that these standards are in any way constructed to favor the actual efficacy of the protests, or, indeed, to provide for the well-being of the protesters in any way, shape, or form. The evolution of a system in which the poorest and most deprived portion of the population has no useful outlet for their anger such that it is ultimately channeled into self-defeating riots that make it easier to sell the ancient lie that there is such a thing as the devil’s poor. All of which is to say that the viewpoint that the riots were an absolutely awful thing is in no way incompatible with complete and total sympathy for the people involved in them.

But let us instead imagine the riots as an aesthetic event, shall we? A government with deep ideological commitments to slashing social services to the poor. Outbreaks of violence, mainly among the young, in the areas most affected. A governmental response that amounts to accusing the young of being irredeemable hooligans with an entitlement problem. And, finally, arrests of the rioters and draconian sentences including, famously, a six month jail sentence for someone who stole £3.50 worth of bottled water. Treated as a set of iconography, this resembles nothing so much as a Robert Holmes story. Indeed, it's basically the plot of The Sunmakers, which is, all things considered, ironic. 

But this is, I would submit, an important truth about the riots to recognize. However self-defeating and damaging they may have been, in the end, in a conflict between impoverished kids who riot and a law and order system that puts them in jail for stealing £3.50 of water, there is, historically, only one side that Doctor Who would ever come down on. There’s just no way around this. Whatever one’s views on the ethics of riots, whatever one’s views on the efficacy of violence as a political (and I use that word in its absolute broadest possible sense) tool, this is simply one of the things that Doctor Who exists for. Doctor Who is a text that valorizes the pressure exerted on the mainstream by the marginal and disenfranchised. It has always been the mainstream’s love letter to dissent, anger, radicalism, and strangeness - to what we might call the Other, if we want a catch-all term. This is not always straightforward, not least because of the previously mentioned problem whereby entrenched power is never going to define “acceptable protest” in any way other than in its own favor, but it’s on the whole a pretty decent arrangement. Indeed, I’d suggest, and largely have been for several years now, that there is a longstanding element of British culture that treats the Other as an essential part of the social order - one that frequently manifests in the peculiarly British image of the portal to faerie, an image that, in the end, defines what Doctor Who is. And a basic part of that, a fundamental, bedrock level "this is unambiguously what Doctor Who is for" sort of thing is that if there's a debate in society about whether to jail people for six months for stealing three pounds fifty of bottled water, Doctor Who is against it.

And look, this honest to God isn’t the fault of Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat, Richard Clark, or anyone else involved in making this episode, which was written, shot, and intended to be transmitted before any of this happens. Really, if anything I feel nothing but sympathy for all of them. Because what this story said on transmission and what it said when it was being filmed were profoundly different things. But, if I may rework a sentence from earlier in the essay, the viewpoint that Night Terrors is an absolutely awful thing is in no way incompatible with complete and total sympathy for the people involved in it.

Because this is a disastrous own goal. It’s a story set on the exact sort of crumbling council estate that characterizes the areas out of which the riots sprung. It’s a story about scared children with no apparent hope in a world that is full of utterly terrifying things. Indeed, in the contrast between the grotty estate and the opulent Victorian mansion that represents all of fears there’s a fundamental sense of class conflict that, on most days, would be wonderful. Not least because the basic decision to set this in a council estate is a last flourish of a Russell T Davies trope that’s, on the whole, not nearly visible enough in Moffat’s Doctor Who, which is the active and conscious grounding of the story in the world of the working class. But look, Damaged Goods this ain't. (Though for what it's worth, I think the landlord and Gatiss's handling of him, and that scene of the Doctor distracting George while the landlord threatens his father for being behind on the bills, is absolutely perfect. I think there's an argument to be made that it's the single best sequence in Season Six.) 

Except that this went out at the same time that David Cameron was saying things like this about the riots: "Perhaps they come from one of the neighbourhoods where it’s standard for children to have a mum and not a dad… where it’s normal for young men to grow up without a male role model, looking to the streets for their father figures, filled up with rage and anger. So if we want to have any hope of mending our broken society, family and parenting is where we’ve got to start." Which is, let's be clear, a dogwhistle for the Daily Mail crowd, and basically just UKIP with the mean bits taken out.

And this is a story in which all of George’s problems are shown to be solved by repairing his relationship with his father, and where the Doctor calmly strolls away after that’s done as though everything else in his life is solved. The story opens with Amy and Rory sneering at the location, saying they could have taken a bus here, and with the Doctor claiming that there’s something important here in the form of a child’s fear. But that is apparently all that’s important, and once it’s resolved any issues like systemic poverty are not only to be left alone, they’re to be ignored. Once George and his father get along, the council estate is just a place to be avoided again. 

And yes, there’s a defense to be made here, which is the massive and blatant metaphor for coming out of the closet that is George and his cupboard, and yes, from that perspective it is a sweet and wonderful story, except that we’re talking about David Cameron here, who made being pro-gay marriage into exhibit A in his “we’re not the mean old Tories of old” media campaign. So being a sweet and touching coming out of the closet story is, in the end, a hollow defense, because it still leaves this story as something that, on transmission, felt like nothing so much as Tory propaganda designed to minimize the idea that poverty is actually a major concern for the population that had just erupted in riots. “We can get away with ignoring poverty because we’re as a party marginally less homophobic than we used to be” is more or less the Tory party platform.

And that’s, at the end of the day, why I hate this story. Because I remember sitting there on September 3rd, 2011, watching the Doctor walk away from that council estate without a care in the world. I remember how angry and frustrating the world was at the end of that summer. I remember how it felt to see no viable path forward, to feel like I had worked for years and gone in to deep debt to get a useless degree, and that I was going to be dependent on the charity of my family forever, and how ashamed and angry and scared and hopeless I felt, every day. I remember feeling, constantly, like there was just this anguished, frustrated rage stuck right at the top of my chest, and that the only thing that held it back was the awful realization that there was nothing specific to be angry at, that the world was just a big and broken thing that sometimes screwed people over, and that I had found myself among the screwed. 

And I knew then, and know now, that my life, which was, even if only through the help of others, a comfortable and safe middle class existence, was on the whole not a bad lot. That as the screwed went, I was damned lucky. That I’d only occasionally had to gaze over the precipice of the vast existential nightmare that is contemporary poverty, and that the occasional tastes of it I’d had, terrifying as they were, were just that: tastes. I’ll not for a moment pretend that I can understand the situation of many of those involved in the riots except by thinking about the raw, frantic terror of honestly having no idea how you’re going to keep your electricity from getting shut off tomorrow and multiplying it by a factor of inconceivable. 

But I knew, watching the Doctor walk off, that what I was watching was a complete and utterly bullshit response to the world that he was walking away from. And I remember the surge of disgust at the preceding forty-five minutes of my life that I felt when the credits came. On September 3rd, 2011, that was what this episode was. It turned my stomach, the same way that I think The Talons of Weng-Chiang would have in 1977, or The Monster of Peladon in 1974, or The Dominators in 1968, or The Celestial Toymaker in 1966 had I watched any of those on transmission. And now it turns my stomach the same way any of those do. Sometimes the confluence of history and narrative within Doctor Who is brilliant. This time, even if only by a stroke of bad luck, it was absolutely revolting.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Waffling (July 26th, 2014)

So, I finished the Swamp Thing chapter. 48,210 words. Which means that timber-munki was off by exactly one word. I was tempted to add a "very" somewhere just to make him spot on, but no - send me your e-mail (I'm snowspinner at gmail) and I'll get you your omnibus.

In other news, I would like to, in a moment of possible hubris, announce my availability for any site or publication that would like episode reviews of Season Eight of Doctor Who, since I'm not doing those on Eruditorum. There are basically two directions I'm willing/interested in going with here. If you own or are friendly with a large-ish site - let's define "large-ish" as "big enough to get press screening copies of episodes so that I can watch a few days early like I did last season when I was writing for Slate" - you can safely assume I will work for free. If you are a smaller site that can't offer a perk like that, I would politely ask for a small fee. Everything is quite negotiable, however, so if you'd like me to do reviews for you, please, send me an e-mail and we'll see what we can work out. Again, I'm snowspinner at gmail.

Which brings us to discussion topics of the week. Hm. Let's go with "what news stories are you finding most interesting right now?" That's one we haven't done yet, I believe. And as this one risks prompting vigorous discussion, allow me to pre-emptively remind everyone that I greatly appreciate the civility and intelligence of my comments section, and will look dimly upon anyone who makes me feel like I should intervene in a discussion.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Anatomy Made People Kill Their Children (The Last War in Albion Part 54: The Anatomy Lesson)

This is the fourth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts is available here. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. Finding volume 2-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: After a first issue dedicated to resolving the outstanding issues from Marty Pasko's run, Alan Moore began work on his vision of the title.

"The placques that explained who they were also told me that the majority of them had murdered their families and sold their bodies to anatomy. It was then that the word anatomy garnered its own edge of horror for me. I did not know what anatomy was. I knew only that anatomy made people kill their children." - Neil Gaiman

Figure 396: With Moore's second issue,
he announced himself unequivocally
as one of the most important and creative
figures in comics.
Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, also known as “The Anatomy Lesson,” is a regular on critics’ lists of the best single issues in the history of comics. This is entirely understandable. Upon release it was a revelation to the handful of readers who were actually buying Saga of the Swamp Thing, and its impact upon them (and upon DC editorial, who began aggressively promoting the title in the wake of Moore’s early issues) is largely responsible for how Moore took a book that was near cancellation and turned it into one of the gems of DC’s line. Beyond that, however, “The Anatomy Lesson” is simply a brilliant comic. Even over thirty years later, when almost every trick and device Moore employs has become every bit as much of a comic book cliche as the twenty-year-old Stan Lee style that Moore championed moving on from, the comic buzzes with power, its sense of freshness and originality undimmed by its countless imitators. It is visibly and transparently a work of genius - a shot across the bow at the precise moment in Moore’s career where he most needed to demonstrate just how good he was. 

Under the hood, of course, “The Anatomy Lesson is simply “A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair” wrapped in a Future Shock. Moore is in many ways straightforwardly repeating the start of his run on Captain Britain here, killing the main character in an initial story focused on wrapping up inherited plot lines and then reintroducing him in his second story. Like “A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair,” “The Anatomy Lesson” spends much of its time paralleling a forensic and clinical analysis of the main character’s dead body with an account of the character’s origin and basic concept. But there is a crucial, albeit subtle difference. “A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair” focuses on recapping the whole of Captain Britain’s history up to that point, telling the story of several distinct runs and attempting to reconcile them into a coherent history. “The Anatomy Lesson,” on the other hand, is focused almost entirely on dissecting the events of Wein and Wrightson’s 1972 Swamp Thing #1. 

Figure 397: The last page of "The Anatomy
Lesson." (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John
Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing
#21, 1983)
This leads towards the issue’s other major antecedent in Moore’s work - his lengthy tenure writing twist ending stories for 2000 AD (a form, it should be noted, that has its roots in the EC horror comics that House of Secrets emulated. Like many of Moore’s Future Shocks and Time Twisters, “The Anatomy Lesson” favors an elliptical structure. It starts and ends with a character, Jason Woodrue standing in his Washington apartment, with the first and last pages being structural mirrors of each other - a backdrop in which Woodrue’s face is cut up into multiple small square panels and a trapezoidal set of panels that overlap these panels depicting Woodrue in long shot, staring out his apartment windows, which are cut into a set of small, square frames so that the square panels underneath serve not only as frames of a comic but as a literal depiction of Woodrue’s face from outside of his window. To the right of each page is a vertical stack of panels that are arranged like the window panels featuring Woodrue’s face, but that depict another event. The first and last lines of the comic are identical: “it’s raining in Washington tonight.” 

Figure 398: The first page of "The Anatomy
Lesson," with a structure paralleling the
last. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben,
from Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, 1983)
As with Moore’s elliptical Future Shocks, however, the point is not so much the fact that the beginning and end of the story match, but rather that upon reaching the end of the story and revisiting its first image the reader is in a profoundly different place due to some surprise revelation. As is typical of the structure, the first page ends by setting up a mystery, the solution to which will hinge on the surprise. In this case, Woodrue describes “the old man” (who turns out to be Sunderland, the villainous corporate leader who spent most of Pasko’s run trying to kidnap Swamp Thing) and imagining him “pounding on the glass right about now.” Woodrue muses on whether there will be blood. “I like to imagine so,” he admits. “Yes, I rather think there will be blood. Lots of blood. Blood in extraordinary quantities.” This monologue juxtaposes the vertical strip of panels on the page’s lower level, which also show a view of a man through a window, specifically one pressing desperately against the glass as, over the course of three panels, the glass is steadily covered with blood. 

Figure 399: Swamp Thing's first appearance within "The
Anatomy Lesson," as a bullet-ridden corpse. (Written by
Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch and John
Totleben. From Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, 1983)
This sequence raises a number of questions such as “who is this man” and “why is he being brutally murdered,” the answers to which will presumably fill the remaining twenty-two pages. Having set up the mystery, then, the comic proceeds to a flashback that makes up the bulk of those pages. Despite the fact that the issue was not promoted as a jumping on point for new readers, and would in reality only inherit the dwindling audience that existed for the comic, Moore is careful to structure this sequence to work for new readers. It is not until the third page that Swamp Thing himself is introduced, and then only as the bullet-ridden corpse seen at the end of “Loose Ends.” Like the image of the man dying against the glass, Swamp Thing is presented as a mystery - a problem to solve. In this case, the problem does not appear to be “who is this person,” but rather a more metafictional problem - how is this comic going to deal with the fact that its main character is dead?

Figure 400: Jason Woodrue ponders the impossible anatomy
of a vegetable man. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben. From Saga of the
Swamp Thing
#21, 1983)
And yet Moore answers this, in many ways, the wrong way round, instead spending the next ten pages instead carefully analyzing the question of who Swamp Thing is, going over the origin story repeatedly. This is structured as a series of rhetorical questions and answers. Initially the mystery is why Alec Holland became the Swamp Thing when nobody else who had been exposed to the famed bio-restorative formula was turned into a plant. Woodrue examines Swamp Thing’s body closely, discovering that he has human-like organs inside of him, but that these organs are just vegetable matter and can’t possibly function. Finally, after a brief bit of exposition about planarian worms, which were at the time in vogue in popular science news due to a study, ultimately revealed to be fatally flawed, in which the worms were trained to run a maze, then ground up and fed to other worms who seemed to then learn to run the maze faster, Moore gets around to dropping his major twist: in fact Alec Holland was killed by the explosion, and his corpse was flung into the swamp where the bio-restorative formula caused the plants that fed on Holland’s decomposing body to absorb his consciousness. As Moore explains it, “we thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland!” 

Figure 401: A planarian.
From this revelation at the halfway point of the issue Moore begins working backwards towards his opening, explaining why Woodrue is standing in his apartment thinking about the death of the old man who hired him to figure all of this out. Woodrue explains how the old man immediately and cruelly fired him, declaring that he had no further use for him and that “there are others who can be paid to see the work through to its conclusion,” and that Woodrue proceeded to sabotage the building’s security systems, locking all of the doors and turning off the freezer unit in which Swamp Thing was stored. 

Figure 402: Bissette and Totleben used the
occasion of Swamp Thing's resurrection to
debut their new and more vegetative design for
the character. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben,
from Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, 1983)
This leads to the issue’s second, and more bleakly funny twist, the solution to the story’s page three mystery: how is the comic going to handle the fact that its main character is dead? The answer, it finally turns out, is that by reexamining and altering the nature of the character’s origin, Moore also quietly and without fanfare changed the nature of his death. As Woodrue reflects, the old man “should have let me finish. He should have listened. Then I’d have been able to explain the most important thing of all to him. I’d have been able to explain that you can’t kill a vegetable by shooting it in the head.” And indeed, the old man hasn’t, and Swamp Thing rises, reads the report that reveals that he is genuinely a monster with no hope of ever regaining a humanity he never had, and, in fury, kills the old man. And so the comic returns to its initial image, the main character restored and the order of things completely upended, an immaculate and intriguing slate for Moore to construct new stories upon. 

Figure 403: Swamp Thing, shattered
by the realization that he was never
human, sinks back into the swamp.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #22,1983)
The first of these new stories is a three-part story that further explores the character of Jason Woodrue. Woodrue is not merely a plant scientist, as “The Anatomy Lesson” makes clear, but rather the human identity of the Floronic Man, a minor plant-based villain within the DC Universe. Picking up several months after “The Anatomy Lesson,” this arc features Woodrue studying Swamp Thing as he reacts to the revelations of “The Anatomy Lesson.” At the start, Swamp Thing is not in a good way - as Woodrue explains it to Abby and Matt, “he’s given up on being human. It got to be too much for him and he had to let it go. He’s withdrawn. He’s a vegetable. He hasn’t moved in a fortnight. He’s put down taproots and stopped pretending to breathe.” Meanwhile, in sequences that go within Swamp Thing’s mind, he has a series of visions in which he steadily abandons the vestiges of his humanity, abandoning his love for Linda Holland, coming upon a bunch of worms feasting upon the corpse of Alec Holland and leaving only his humanity for Swamp Thing to eat, and finally opting to discard the last of his humanity, symbolically represented as a skull and a few vertebrae imploring Swamp Thing to “get up! C’mon! Get moving! This is the human race! You have to keep running or you get disqualified!” 

Figure 404: The Floronic Man explains
his vision of a world without animals.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from Saga
of the Swamp Thing
 #23, 1984)
Meanwhile, the Floronic Man executes a scheme to commune with the world of plants into which Swamp Thing is sinking, an experience that drives him mad and leads him to embark upon an elaborate scheme of the sort generally associated with super-villains. He begins in a town of 559 people called Lacroix, where he seals the population within their houses and begins allowing the vegetation to grow wild. “In almost all of the houses,” Moore’s narration explains, “there were one or more potted plants. These began to accelerate their photosynthetic processes, pumping out pure oxygen at an alarming rate. As they became hyperoxygenated, the people within the houses grew excited and nervous without knowing why. At 2:15, someone lit a cigarette,” the result of which was the incineration of the entire town. Woodrue explains that this is the beginning of a plan to eradicate the entirety of the animal population of the planet to create “another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans. Those long, green centuries where no bird sang, where no dog barked, where there was no noise! Where there was no screaming meat!!” 

Figure 405: Swamp Thing greets
the sun, at home in his swamp, at
peace with his vegetable nature.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from Saga
of the Swamp Thing
 #24, 1984)
The effect of Woodrue’s scheme to create so much oxygen that animals die out however, is traumatic to the Green, where Swamp Thing now resides, and, between his fury at Woodrue’s tainting of the place Swamp Thing retreated to and the terrified screams of Abby Cable as she is attacked by plants, Swamp Thing returns to confront Woodrue. The core of this confrontation is an argument between Woodrue and Swamp Thing, in which Woodrue rants more about how he is saving the planet from the animals that are destroying it, while Swamp Thing argues that the death and destruction wrought by Woodrue is itself “the way of man.” The argument concludes when Swamp Thing confronts Woodrue with the question of who “will change the oxygen back into the gasses that we need to survive when all the men and animals are dead,” at which point Woodrue’s sense of communion with the world of plants falters, and he cracks and runs away. Abby summarizes this, saying that “he realized that the plants couldn’t survive without man, and so the plants backed down.” Swamp Thing concurs, but asks, “will your people do as much?” But however much Swamp Thing may consider himself to be separate from Abby’s people, he is animate now, and accepts that his place is not to simply sink into the green, but to live in the swamps, experiencing the vibrant ecosystem, and the arc ends with a splash page of Swamp Thing standing, arms spread, greeting the rising sun. [continued]

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Comics Reviews (7/24/14)

Amazing Spider-Man #4

Perfectly competent new character introduction, but I honestly can't think of much to say about it past that. Introducing characters is easy. Using them interestingly is the real test. B+

Daredevil #6

Hm. So, Waid's Daredevil, at its genesis, was about getting the character away from the shadow of Frank Miller. And man, that shadow looms over this issue with its suggestion that Daredevil's father was abusive and the return of focus to Daredevil's mother, which was very much a Miller invention. And yet this is also doing goofy adventure fun, and setting up a trip to Wakanda. Which is... I mean, it's easy to be nervous when the next issue is called "Law of the Jungle." Plus there's a lot of sharp political stuff here. All in all, it's a strange issue that doesn't quite tip its hand about where it's going, which is a lot more interesting than Daredevil has been in a while. B+

Doctor Who (Eleventh Doctor) #1

Oh, good - this is the first Al Ewing coming in the list (Al Ewing and Rob Williams, in fact, but I'm not familiar enough with Williams to talk about him in the general case). That's good - he's got three books out this week, but I want to talk about this one first. Ewing's an interesting writer for me. First of all, he's a long-time fan and Kickstarter backer, full disclosure. And he's a solid comics writer. He hasn't, for my money, had his big iconic series yet, but he's also yet to write anything that didn't work for me, and I'm really looking forward to the first project where he really nails his colors to the mast and shows what he's capable of. (I should note I haven't read his British work yet, only his Marvel stuff.)

And, I mean, the licensed Doctor Who comic was never going to be it. But damn, this is really impressive. it's easy to do crap with a licensed property like Doctor Who - you get very little room to say anything major or significant about it, because that's left for the television series. So you're left with very self-contained, inward focused stories, or very sterile continuity romps.

Ewing and Williams manage to do neither of these, instead telling a story that's really quite compelling. There are a lot of really good tricks here - a deft use of narration that gives it a sense of size and scope, a really tight theme, a fantastically well-defined character. The result is something that feels like the best bits of the Virgin era - where the grandeur of the Doctor is paired with the everyday in a really compelling, interesting way. There's a moment where Ewing drops from the narration for a moment, as the Doctor comes back to the main character, who's clearly (to the reader) suffering from depression. They chased an alien for a bit, then the Doctor left, like he does, and then suddenly he comes back. And his explanation is this wonderful, small, "you seemed sad." It's spot-on characterization for Matt Smith's Doctor, and it feels very contemporary and now, and it's really, properly brilliant stuff. Highly, highly recommend this. It'll be one of the best Doctor Who spin-off pieces of the decade, I think. A+ (Pick of the Week)

Mighty Avengers #12

Mighty Avengers is a really interesting book, in that they got a white British guy to write a book that's clearly been conceptualized at some point in its development as "the black team." Ewing is handling this with real aplomb, and the book avoids every single obvious thing it could do wrong. All of which said, this homage to the 70s Blaxploitation roots of Luke Cage that's also a huge meta-joke about the sliding Marvel timeline and how it means that Luke Cage wasn't actually around for his own era of history is a little bit trying. Not bad, so much as not necessarily the flavor for this book that I enjoy most. B-

Original Sin #5.2 Thor and Loki: The Tenth Realm #2

Everything said about the first issue applies here: Al Ewing is doing a heroic job with a story that has no apparent reason for existing, and one really wonders how Jason Aaron feels about his career right now. It's not bad, but it's really hard to make yourself care about this comic. To recap, a chunk of Todd McFarlene's Spawn universe that was cast off as part of the process of settling the rights to Miracleman has been declared the "Tenth Realm" of Norse cosmology, and now Thor and Odin have a sister in ludicrous 90s she-armor. If that doesn't seem kind of funny to you, this is probably your pick of the week.  C

Saga #21

The bits actually centered on Hazel and her family continue to scintillate, but I have to admit, people with televisions for heads all look alike. B+

Supreme: Blue Rose #1

A Warren Ellis mini. It's playing a lot of cards close to the chest in the first issue, but Ellis is putting some interesting pieces into play. Can't quite recommend yet - it's definitely not the sort of series you can judge from one issue. But the first issue is quite strong and interesting, and I want to flag it for people who like getting in on the ground floor as a strange new thing unfolds. A

Trees #3

Well, this is certainly interesting. Any sense that I knew what Trees was doing is thoroughly shattered at this point, as Ellis just jumps to new plots and characters with no obvious connection to what's come before. (Although there are a few threads picked up from issue #1 that had been abandoned.) The number of plot threads Ellis is intertwining is absolutely massive, and there's very little sense of plot. Given that Ellis is not prone to sixty issue epics, it's tough to see what he's doing with this. Fascinating. Strange. B

The Unwritten Apocalypse #7

Here's a fun exercise - skip to the next review and read it, and then just imagine the genre described is different and I said "Mike Carey" instead of "Ed Brubaker." C

Velvet #6

This is sharp, well-done spy noir in a nice, old-fashioned, classic sense. It's a loving homage to a genre, done straight and without much adornment. Ed Brubaker is good at the genre in question, so it breezes along competently. All of which said, it's terribly suited to single issues. The month (or more) gap between issues means that when it comes out, all memory of where we were last month is long gone. This one recaps the basic setup, but it barely helps. This feels like an impressionistic slice of genre every month, but as an exercise in storytelling, it needs the trade paperback. C

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Outside the Government: The Gathering

It’s September 2nd, 2011. Katy Perry is at number one with “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” In the five days since Let’s Kill Hitler aired, the Battle of Tripoli wrapped up. That’s about it. And Miracle Day ticked one week closer to being over, of course. 

It being an odd-numbered episode, tit’s time for the show to revamp itself once again, with characteristic subtlety. Now we’re in a big metaphor about the financial crash. Way back with Partners in Crime, I suggested that Davies got very lucky with Donna, creating a character who was visibly about the anxieties of ordinary middle class people in a declining economy. Now Davies has the exact opposite luck: he’s decided to make this show focus on the financial crisis, and he ends up doing it after the London riots and two weeks before the Occupy movement kicks up. He’s almost, but not quite, as completely screwed over as Mark Gatiss is in this regard, but that’s for Monday. 

It’s not that Davies’s approach is wrong in light of the Occupy movement and all of that. But there’s something casually jarring about it. The empty streets and quiet resignation of the world isn’t a bad guess for what the world would be like in the wake of crises like the ones Torchwood has shown, but it’s a guess that lacks all of the immediately compelling and arresting imagery of the world it’s being transmitted into. Even before you take up any questions about the quality of what “The Gathering” has to say about the world, you’re stuck with the fact that summer of 2011 just doesn’t quite feel like the time to be saying it. It feels not entirely unlike the Pertwee era in Season Eleven, or the Troughton era in Season Six - however good it may be at a given moment, it’s become a tired and old-fashioned sort of show. 

One need only look over at Doctor Who to get a sense of this. However awkward Let’s Kill Hitler may be, almost nothing about Doctor Who in this era is playing it safe. Whereas Torchwood feels the exact opposite at this point - like it’s just using a well worn playbook with minor variations to tell stories that, if they’re not past their sell-by date, it’s only because someone slapped on a new label with a later date. To be honest, the biggest impact Miracle Day has had so far was keeping A Good Man Goes to War from using Jack like it was originally intended to. This isn’t a show that knows why it exists anymore, save perhaps to be a big American co-production. It exists to try the formula that worked in the UK in the US, in the hopes that it’ll make more money. And even that’s been quietly usurped by Doctor Who, which has finally hit it big in America and had major episodes done with co-production money from an American network. 

So we shuffle grimly towards a finale in which everything has been arbitrarily reconfigured yet again. We’re on the fifth premise for the show, and it’s miles from where we started. Indeed, the “nobody dies” thing has effectively been entirely abandoned, such that people talk casually about killing with only occasional use of the phrase “category one” in order to nod at the core premise. We’ve been through “introduce Torchwood to Americans,” fighting conspiracies in LA, the camps, a story about Jack’s past, and now we’re on a sort of trumped up “this is the final battle” plot because that’s what goes at the end of a series. But there’s no ideas left. The series is wrapping up with structure, not with content, coming to a conclusion that is ultimately defined by the narrative conventions of a season of television, as opposed to something that comes organically out of what’s gone before. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Things That He Might Remember (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon)

In this scene Clara is cleverly, albeit tastelessly, disguised as
a swastika. 
It’s April 23rd, 2011. LMFAO are at number one with “Party Rock Anthem,” while Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Adele, and Katy Perry also chart. Since Christmas, the Tunisian government has fallen, Hosni Mubarak has resigned in Egypt, and civil wars have broken out in Libya and Syria. Spring is in the air, as it were. While in the news during this story, Prince William and Catherine Middleton are married in Westminster Abbey.

It’s been just over three years and one month since this story aired. This is an odd gap to try to historicize within. It’s recent enough that it’s still easy to remember exactly how this felt on transmission, with the Moffat era’s brief quasi-imperial phase (aka “the bit Toby Haynes directed”) marching on with something that felt fresh and innovative. And yet it’s old enough, or, at least, Doctor Who’s style has changed enough since it that rewatching it, what jumps out is how little of this story would be done this way in 2014. At the time the tagline, acknowledged in interviews by Moffat, was that they were opening the season with what felt like a season finale. And sure enough, that’s the effect given, not least because of its two part structure.

But rewatched, it’s striking how slow bits are. The first episode uses half its runtime for what is in effect a massive slab of exposition, delivered before the Doctor has even begun investigating the plot. Yes, there’s a lot to cover between the Doctor’s death, how the Silence work, and a recap on River, but the way in which the episode repeatedly re-illustrates the concepts, contriving to show us the Silence making people forget multiple times, or finding multiple excuses to have River and the Doctor reiterate that they meet out of order, is striking simply because it’s the sort of thing isn’t done anymore. The series taking that kind of time to lay out exposition in 2014 is unimaginable. 

There are ultimately two things that are lost in this. The first is the more obvious, which is Moffat’s exposition scenes. These have always been one of Moffat’s talents, simply because he’s adept at using the skills he honed in sitcoms for years to smooth out exposition, so that the scenes are full of gags and little brilliances that hum along. For all that the first half of The Impossible Astronaut is pure and unadulterated exposition, it’s also an opportunity to just let a very good cast do their thing. The four-man TARDIS crew is scintilating, and everybody gets a constant stream of good moments here. It’s telling that this ends up being the last time we see River in this mode - on every subsequent appearance, her primary role is to haunt and destabilize the narrative. But here we get her as a wisecracking, thrilling, fun character in her own right. This sort of willingness to luxuriate in spinning your wheels and just let an entertaining and skilled cast be entertaining and skilled rapidly drains out of Doctor Who after this story, for better and for worse.

The cast is bolstered significantly here by a particularly savvy choice of settings. This marks only the third time that Doctor Who has crossed its own timestream, so to speak, and done a story that is consciously situated in a historical setting during which Doctor Who existed. In this case, The Impossible Astronaut takes place during the transmission of The Space Pirates, while Day of the Moon is during the period where everyone was waiting for Jon Pertwee to show up. And more than just being a moment in history that Doctor Who was actually on the air for, this is a moment of history defined by a sci-fi iconography. What this means is that the story gets an incredibly rich setting (added to by the decision to use the big overseas shoot to film in the middle of Utah and get some gorgeous establishing shots) that it can draw from whenever things risk getting a bit slow. Richard Nixon, in particular, turns out to be astonishingly good if you need a spare bit of comic relief, which, to be fair, America has known for decades. Just wait til we discover Jeremy Thorpe. 

The other thing you lose after this, and this is in many regards the subtler one, is a certain complexity of storytelling. The fact of the matter is that The Impossible Astronaut really does have an absolutely ludicrous amount of stuff to introduce in a short window, and that’s only the stuff it’s admitting to showing you. It also has to quietly introduce the backdrop for the entire River Song/Silence/Madame Kovarian arc, and do that with enough vividness that it can be referenced for an entire season. It’s not just in the matter of time spent that this story is heavy on exposition - it’s also the anchor for a multi-episode plot arc that’s going to be told completely out of sequence. This isn’t merely the most structurally complex story Doctor Who ever has tried, it’s also a limit point from which the series subsequently backs away. Even if it had worked, and clearly there’s no consensus that it did, this stretches the approach to its limit.

And so The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon stands as a sort of last outpost in a particular direction of Doctor Who. This is brave and probably wise. It’s a good story, and it’s good that the approach in question went out on a high note. Yes, everything that comes after it is subsequently rough, but that’s what happens when you try to find a new way of doing things. It takes a bit. Arguably it’s not until late 2013 that Moffat really figures out the details of the approach that replaces this one. (Arguably it’s not even then, though you’ll not see me making that argument) But what we might think of as the classical Moffat era really wraps up here.

Fittingly enough, it does so in a story that is largely about trying to figure out what to do after Blink. We already got that to some extent with Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone and its intensive focus on the Weeping Angels as constructs of narrative, but here we get a story that, on a very basic and fundamental level, is mostly about the camera. This was always a key aspect of the Weeping Angels - the fact that they obey the camera, and thus obey the viewer’s eyes, necessitating a continual act of watching. Indeed, it’s the entire joke of the Weeping Angels: whatever you do, don’t go behind the sofa. The Silence are a clever spin on this - ostensibly, at least, they exist separate from the camera. The camera can show them, but when it cuts away the audience remembers them. And that holds nicely right up until Day of the Moon, when suddenly the Silence start disappearing into cuts.

The key scene, and it’s possibly the most brilliant single scene in the program’s history, is the one of Amy exploring the children’s home in what is structured as a continuing scene in which editing is merely used to change camera angles and not to compress time, except that within the scene Amy’s hands and body steadily fill with tally marks that signify the presence of the Silence. In other words, the camera, which previously seemed “on our side,” unexpectedly becomes an instrument of the monsters, who can now hide within the medium. From a viewer’s perspective, the point is even more troubling: we can no longer trust that what the camera shows us is actually what’s happening. The Silence, as villains, have gained the power to manipulate the entire narrative to suit their purpose. It’s terribly fresh and interesting - it’s the one moment of the episode that still feels unequivocally edgy and creative today. Conveniently, it’s also the one moment that flags where the show is going to go, instead of just shamelessly playing to its own established strengths. This sort of trick is very quickly going to become the default mode the show works in. It’s going to be much less self-congratulatory and flashy after this, but it’s going to be not just normal but actively mundane and ordinary. 

And yet all of this flash and style is ultimately a feint designed to draw attention away from the fact that everything in this story is actually about River Song. Ironically, the main clue to this is the utter lack of them: this is the first River Song story we’ve had in which there are essentially no revelations regarding the character. Instead there’s just summary of everything we’ve seen before. Because, of course, the real revelations are happening away from River. She’s all over this story, as the astronaut at the lake, as the child in the suit, and as Amy’s pregnancy. Every aspect of the backstory here is River, but with River in plain sight, for the moment, this becomes relatively invisible. Even if a viewer guesses some component part of the mystery, the whole of it is almost impossible to intuit, despite the fact that the answer to any given question is almost certain to end up being “River.” Given this, the fact that the story focuses so intently on the ways in which this relationship is painful for River, both in terms of her “far worse day” and in the sad finale of their first/last kiss is telling with regards to where the real meat of this arc is going to be.

But underneath this is what it is tempting to call a fundamental problem with the entire approach. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon was conceived of as “opening with a season finale.” The trouble is, of course, that you’re then stuck without a season finale. Ultimately, all the later revelations exist to set this story up, and they’re just placed after it instead. And it’s a joy - the mix of elements works marvelously here. It’s only going to be when we have to start treating the elements individually as parts of their own stories, instead of as a big, heady, bombastic jumble that things are going to start to go a bit wrong.

So in effect what we have is a story that shows why it has to seem dated barely three years after transmission. Because this story is and always was an endpoint - the furthest a particular approach could be taken without getting to the point where further improvements and refinements are terribly minimalist. In some ways this has been visible ever since The Big Bang, where Moffat calmly took the Russell T Davies finale to its logical limit and let the narrative collapse play out completely, then got on with it and told a different story. Here we get everything that Moffat is associated with put together into more or less the definitive statement of it. It’s as definitive a Steven Moffat story as The Pandorica Opens was a Russell T Davies story. And so what naturally follows it is a challenge to start doing something that isn’t just the well worn set of tricks that Moffat has been developing fairly linearly since The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.

But first we have to plunge into the uneasy process of remaking it. This is going to be rough going at times, to say the least. It has to be. At its best, one of the things Doctor Who has always been extraordinary at is making new mistakes. This is true on a very fundamental creative level, where even from the very beginning of the program you are forced to say things like, “well in their defense, resolving two weeks of sci-fi experimental theater with ‘oh, bother, the switch was stuck’ is not something I’ve ever seen done before,” up through the days of “racism and giant rats, huh” and “holy fuck that coat” and at last to things like “wait, they lied to their brother and told him he was a robot?” This is terribly important, because if you don’t make new mistakes you’ll never discover that obvious mistakes like evil robot salt shakers, hiring a construction worker dressed in a ludicrous scarf as your lead actor, a giant fascist Bertie Bassett, or a searing deconstruction of the normative rape/revenge plots that dominate sci-fi media in the early 21st century that argues for a focus on women’s narrative and experiences are, in fact, brilliant and important ideas that the world would be a poorer place without. 

Which is to say that in many ways an entirely new sort of Moffat era begins here. One that has not, in my opinion, been particularly well-analyzed in a “what is this piece of television trying to do in the first place” sort of way. To be honest, too much Moffat criticism has focused on Season Five, with everything after it treated as “the bits that don’t work as well.” This may be a true statement about them, but it’s in no way the only interesting thing about them.

And the funny thing is, even at the time I was aware of all of this. I saw these two episodes two weeks early, at their New York City debut. My sister camped outside the movie theater for tickets at midnight the night before, and I drove into the city after my class and joined her about… oh, fifty or sixty people back in line once everyone in front of us had done versions of the same thing. The event had originally been planned for one movie theater, and I think by the end every free screen in the place was showing the episodes, and then they had another set of screenings after for the people who were too far back in line. But Tori and I were actually in the main room, so got to see the Q&A with Moffat, Smith, Kingston, Gillan, and Darvill, which was wonderful. I remember being struck, for neither the first nor last time, by the sheer number of female fans cosplaying as Amy and River, clearly invested in the show as it was in that very moment like I’d really never seen for Doctor Who before. 

I’d been writing TARDIS Eruditorum for a couple of months at that point. I was late in the Hartnell era, writing up the post on the Quatermass serials, if I recall, and reading the novelization of The Smugglers. And it was the first new episode since I’d started. The impetus to write the blog really came out of the end of Season Five and the fact that I couldn’t get the show out of my head in the months after that season ended. I’d been a fan for years, but something about this precise moment of the show just felt electric and fresh and new. Like there was so much potential in it. And since I couldn’t get it out of my head, I figured I’d start writing about it. And these two episodes just… blew me away. There were so many questions and things to pick over. So many things that seemed interesting and innovative. Like the show could do anything. And more than anything, I wondered if it could.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Waffling (July 19th, 2014)

The first fifteen parts of the Swamp Thing chapter are done. Total will be more than twenty, not quite sure how many more. Twenty-five tops, I’d say. Probably a bit lower. Probably going to be twenty-three or some utterly odd number like that where there’s no intuitive sense of an act structure.

Best parts so far are Part Four (7/25), Part Eight (8/22), Part Ten (9/5), and Part Twelve (9/19).

Best cliffhanger is Part Eleven, although I’m also very proud of where Part Six takes up and leaves off. Total chapter length is currently 43,595. It is longer than the Flood book.